Jacksonville Jaguars' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
The Jacksonville Jaguars have everything they need to craft a blueprint for success in free agency. General manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley have $59,338,624 worth of cap space, according to figures from Spotrac.com.
That appealing number should ensure several reinforcements in the team's main areas of need. In addition, Caldwell has already done fine work retaining a key player on either side of the ball.
He must follow that work with new deals for a capable cornerback as well as a veteran quarterback who could be destined for a mentor-like role in 2014.
With the significant loose change left over, Caldwell and Bradley need to find a skilled pass-rusher as well as a competent wide receiver. They also need room to acquire at least two interior O-linemen.
Here are the six steps to free-agency success for the Jags.
Bring Back Chad Henne
Chad Henne shouldn't be the first choice to start under center in the new season. But the veteran signal-caller still has value in Jacksonville.
But while he remains unsigned, all indications are that the Henne and the Jaguars will reach an agreement later this week.
Henne has value to the Jaguars and has expressed a desire to stay.
Last year, Henne played in 15 games (13 starts), throwing 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He had a 4-9 record.
Those numbers aren't particularly inspiring, but they are not dreadful either. Keeping Henne around would let Bradley and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch steadily develop a rookie passer.
At the very least, Henne is a backup the team could feel confident trusting if a draftee begins to struggle. O'Halloran succinctly defines Henne's importance for this season: "Regardless of when the Jaguars draft a quarterback, it makes complete sense to have Henne back as equal parts stop-gap starter, valuable mentor and proven in-game replacement."
Re-Sign Alan Ball and Will Blackmon
The Jaguars aren't enamoured with the free-agent options at linebacker. They will add to that position via the draft, according to The Florida Times-Union writer Ryan O'Halloran.
So that leaves the front and back lines to be fixed on the veteran market. Caldwell has to start by keeping key figures in the secondary together.
That means bringing back free-agent cornerback Will Blackmon, who delivered a competent season as a new arrival in 2013.
As ESPN reporter Michael DiRocco highlights, Blackmon, along with Alan Ball, proved to be excellent value:
The Jaguars are pretty solid at this spot, especially if the team re-signs Blackmon, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next week. Ball was signed as a free agent last year, and were it not for the play of defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks would have been tabbed as GM David Caldwell’s best signing. Ball started 15 games, led the team with 14 pass breakups, and intercepted two passes.
They each boast the size Bradley needs to make a press-based coverage scheme work. Blackmon knows the coach's system well from his days with the Seattle Seahawks.
The physical attributes and scheme knowledge of a player like Blackmon is something the Jags cannot afford to lose. This pass defense still needs another quality cover man to push for a starting berth, but retaining Blackmon keeps this secondary strong.
Sign a Skilled Pass-Rusher
Improving the pass rush rates as important as getting better at quarterback this offseason. Bradley has to find a consistent pass-rush threat to spearhead his multiple-front schemes.
Bradley has used the "Leo" position in Jacksonville, and both veteran Jason Babin and youngster Andre Branch have seen time in the role. It would be safe to bet against 33-year-old Babin being brought back, especially given his high cap figure.
He will make $6 million this season, and that makes Babin a likely cap casualty, per a report from NFL.com writer Kevin Patra.
Branch has plenty of potential, but most of it has gone unfulfilled so far. In fairness, the 2012 second-round pick did become productive in the later stages of last season, registering six sacks.
But even with improvement from Branch, Bradley needs another player who can wreck blocking schemes and worry quarterbacks. Fortunately, there are a host of skilled pass-rushers on the market. Three in particular should appeal to Jacksonville.
Michael Johnson has generally performed well as a rush end for the Cincinnati Bengals. He operates on the side opposite Branch and combines height, power and acceleration to collapse the edge.
One concern is that Johnson's production dipped in 2013, as he registered just 3.5 sacks. He uncomfortably wore the franchise tag, as well as receiving extra blocking attention following the season-ending injury to premier defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
If the drop in numbers deters the Jags or Johnson simply opts to sign for a team with more immediate playoff prospects, a double Super Bowl winner could be the answer.
Justin Tuck is considered on the decline by many, but he still logged 11 sacks in 2013. He is also versatile enough to rush from a standing position, a three-point stance or from the inside as a defensive tackle.
Tuck is ready to let the market determine his value and destination, according to Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post. That puts the stellar veteran within Jacksonville's range, and Bradley has to give him a long look.
If he is not tempted, Bradley could opt for a more unheralded free agent who could be the best scheme fit on the market. Mike Neal is ideally suited to perform the linebacker/defensive end "Leo" role, considering he played both positions for the Green Bay Packers.
Neal notched five sacks in 2013 as a rush linebacker and 4.5 the season before as an end. At 6'3" and 285 pounds, the 26-year-old has the size and speed mix to thrive in Bradley's defense.
The Jaguars cannot leave free agency in the rear view without securing at least one quality pass-rusher.
Sign Red Bryant
When the Seattle Seahawks dumped Red Bryant to free up cap space, he immediately became one of the top defensive tackles on the market. He is certainly one of the most formidable 5-technique run-stuffers in football.
His talent for occupying multiple blockers and solidifying a run defense makes Bryant a dream signing for Bradley. He coached the 6'4", 323-pounder in Seattle and converted him to defensive end, a position dubbed "Elephant" on Bradley's hybrid front.
The switch kick-started Bryant's career, while making the Seahawks one of the toughest teams in the league to run against.
That has to appeal to a Jacksonville defense that ranked 29th against the run in 2013.
Part of the problem is a lack of imposing size up front. Tyson Alualu made a respectable attempt at playing the "Elephant." But the 6'3", 295-pounder simply isn't big or powerful enough to consistently absorb double-teams and keep linebackers clean.
Bradley knows firsthand how Bryant has mastered that art. He has to make signing the beefy D-lineman a major free-agency priority.
The decision to re-sign Sen'Derrick Marks has ensured the defensive front remains strong in the middle. But Bradley still needs a player like Bryant to collapse the edge away from the "Leo."
The Kansas City Chiefs are already keen on Bryant, per Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun (h/t Ben Nielsen of Arrowhead Addict). But Bradley's history with the player should tip the scales in Jacksonville's favor.
Bolster the Offensive Line
It doesn't matter who is playing quarterback, catching the pass or carrying the ball; the Jacksonville offense will remain stunted until the line is fixed.
Gene Frenette of The Florida Times-Union spells out how bad the Jags' front five was in 2013:
General manager Dave Caldwell has plenty of cap space, so cutting ties with Nwaneri was just as much about two other numbers of great concern – 78.8 yards rushing per game and 50 sacks allowed last season. Both were second-worst in the NFL.
Not that Nwaneri is the lone culprit in those dreadful statistics. Retired center Brad Meester and left guard Will Rackley also played a part in the suspect play of the interior line. And Caldwell decided than rather have Nwaneri return to camp and compete for his old job, where he played all 1,056 snaps in 2013, it was best to start over.
Frenette was referring to the team's decision to part ways with guard Uche Nwaneri as a necessary first step in a large-scale makeover.
Just like with the D-line, there are a plethora of options for Caldwell and Bradley to choose from. Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz are obvious candidates at guard. The Kansas City Chiefs duo are effective power-based blockers.
For help at center, the Jags could consider Green Bay Packers starter Evan Dietrich-Smith or New England Patriots veteran Ryan Wendell. Both players can also operate at guard, as can Leroy Harris of the Detroit Lions.
Bradley has the option to target big bodies who fit the power schemes preferred by running back Maurice Jones-Drew. But with Jones-Drew ready for a new home, Bradley could pursue more mobile blockers to play the zone techniques he tried to incorporate at the start of last season.
Having brought back Cameron Bradfield and Sam Young, per John Oehser of Jaguars.com, and with 2013 No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel returning from injury, things are set at tackle.
But the Jaguars have to use free agency to bolster their options along the interior. Caldwell needs to sign at least two new faces.
Snare a Sure-Handed Wide Receiver
Without a natural go-to target following the indefinite suspension of Justin Blackmon, the Jags need to spread the ball around. That all-inclusive approach demands a collection of roving, sure-handed receivers.
Ace Sanders emerged as that type of playmaker toward the end of his rookie season. Mike Brown showed some ability as a deep threat, while Cecil Shorts III's talent is beyond question.
But Brown and Shorts are far from reliable. Both can make big plays, but neither can be trusted to always hold onto the ball.
What this offense needs is an intelligent possession-type pass-catcher who can act as a safety valve underneath. Free-agent Emmanuel Sanders fits the bill.
The 5'11", 180-pound speedster enjoyed a solid 2013 with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 26-year-old caught 67 passes, including six touchdown grabs.
Sanders knows how to work short-range routes and find space in intermediate zones. Like Neal, he is a capable young playmaker who fits the way this roster is being constructed under Caldwell.
The general manager has already smartly re-signed talented "move" tight end Clay Harbor, per NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport. Now he needs to improve the options at wide receiver.
If Caldwell retains the usable pieces in the secondary, adds some playmakers to the front seven and fortifies the O-line, the Jags will be ready for noticeable improvement in 2014.